When Social Media Exposure Isn’t A Good Thing

Any publicity is good publicity, right? Not anymore it isn’t. Some of the worst publicity a business can receive is as a result of its own employees posting damaging material on social media sites.

It may only be a “thing” in the last 20 years or so, but having a social media policy to control employees’ use of their own social media platforms is now a must-have for employers. That’s because employees’ use of social media websites to make negative comments about their employer or co-workers has become a real headache.

Social Media As The New Chat Space

It seems to have become somewhat fashionable for employees to publish critical comments about their employer (or former employer) or co-workers on the internet. The nature of the comments can easily cross the boundary into being legally actionable for, as an example, defamation.

As internet networking sites became more prevalent as a forum of social interaction, it was perhaps inevitable that the commentary they contain would stray over into workplace issues. After all, if the internet is now just another venue for “chat”, then why wouldn’t people want to mention what they like (and more often) dislike about their workplace and work mates?

But communicating on the internet is fundamentally different than catching up with someone on the telephone or in person during a coffee break. And what the publishers of these comments still don’t seem to grasp is that posting damaging comments online is worse than publishing them in a newspaper because the range of possible readers is unlimited.

There’s Nothing Private About Online Postings

The words of the person doing the posting are preserved in print, if only electronically. They can (and will) be copied and forwarded and circulated verbatim. The really critical point is that an internet “conversation” is in no way private. It is in all senses a publication.

It has the potential (and likelihood) of being accessed by many, many internet users and of being duplicated and forwarded to unlimited potential readers. It’s easy to see that making negative on-line comments about one’s employment can cause exponentially more damage than making the same comment in a one-on-one conversation.

A Case In Point

A couple of years ago, the B.C. Labour Relations Board dealt with just such a situation. The employer was the operator of West Coast Mazda in Pitt Meadows. The employees in question were members of a bargaining unit newly certified by the UFCW.

Between them, the two employees had almost 500 “friends” associated with their Facebook accounts. Commencing in August of 2010, a manager raised concerns about their troubling on-line postings.

The employer began to monitor the employees’ ongoing Facebook activity. Soon, the postings began to speak of things like “unfair labour practices”, “workplace harassment”, responding to a “mental “attack” with stabbings, and began using obscenities to describe members of management.

Not satisfied with stopping there, the employees began making highly objectionable comments regarding the sexuality and sexual activities of supervisors and then waded into openly obscene chatter. The commentary drew extremely derogatory conclusions about the employer’s business practices and accused it of being “f*#$in crooks” and “greedy … lowlife scumbags”.

The employer conducted an investigation and interviewed the two employees. They (surprise!) denied being the authors of the postings and claimed that others could have accessed their Facebook accounts without their knowledge. Ahhh, yes, the “someone tampered with my water bottle” defence that didn’t work for Ben Johnson at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul… it had a similar impact here.

The two employees were dismissed for just cause reasons for making disrespectful, damaging and derogatory comments on Facebook. The B.C. Labour Relations Board viewed the employees’ postings as damaging comments about the employer’s business and rejected the concept that the employees could, in the circumstances, have any serious expectation of privacy. The employees’ comments were characterized as offensive, insulting and disrespectful, amounting to insubordination and the LRB concluded there was proper cause for summary dismissal in these circumstances.

It is difficult to imagine that these two individuals thought their employer wouldn’t ever come to hear about their on-line commentary. But the fact is that people keep making that same mistake.

What To Do About It?

As is often the case, the answer for employers is to implement a policy addressing the undesirable behaviour, train employees about their obligations, and ensure that the policy is enforced when infractions occur.

A “Social Media Policy” is now (sadly) just as necessary as many other workplace policies. Such a policy should emphasize that work time is for working (not posting selfies) and that the employment relationship and the company’s operational affairs are private matters. It should warn employees about posting objectionable comments, photos, caricatures, and other inappropriate material online.

The policy should also caution employees not to be lured into the trap of thinking that if the content they post online can be proven to be true, it’s okay to have published it. There is a variety of legislation which could result in liability for the person(s) posting information about others online even if that information is proven to be true. Statutes such as (for example) the B.C. Personal Information Protection Act and Privacy Act and Human Rights Code may well be the source of liability even if the posted information is accurate.

The time to implement a social policy is right now. Don’t procrastinate because you’ll surely regret it.

On that subject, I can recommend a recent article by Sarah Visca of ConnectsUs HR, which you can access at  https://connectsus.com/blog/small-business-needs-social-media-policy



This item is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to be relied upon as legal advice. Informed legal advice should always be obtained about your specific circumstances.

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